May 19, 2024

Eco-friendly recipes to celebrate Earth Day

Make Puneeta Chhitwal-Varma’s low-waste recipes for Calcutta-style kathi rolls, two-ingredient chapatti, fresh cilantro and mint chutney, and any-vegetable quick pickles

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Our cookbook of the week is Good Food, Healthy Planet by Toronto-based writer, food advocate and sustainability expert Puneeta Chhitwal-Varma.

Jump to the recipes: Calcutta-style kathi rolls, two-ingredient chapatti (whole-grain flatbread), fresh cilantro and mint chutney, and any-crunchy-vegetable quick pickles.

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Good food nourishes our bodies, minds and souls — but that’s not all. As Toronto-based writer and food advocate Puneeta Chhitwal-Varma highlights in her cookbook debut, Good Food, Healthy Planet (Touchwood Editions, 2024), the definition needs to expand to include not only us but everyone else.

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“Good food is not just what we put in our bodies, how it affects our body and mind — though that’s a big part of it. Good food is how it affects us, but that’s only the starting point. Good food is also how it was grown and raised, whether the farmers were paid fairly, whether the soil was allowed to regenerate and whether the pesticides have run off and polluted the water. We can’t just think of this delicious, beautiful bowl of food and how it impacts us and our children. We have to think about our legacy and how it impacts the environment.”

Eating in a way that benefits both people and the planet may seem overwhelming. At a time when one-fifth of all food goes to waste, and millions face food insecurity, it can feel like a problem too large for any one person to put a dent in. Chhitwal-Varma isn’t daunted by the enormity and urgency of the situation. Instead, in her guide to “simple, practical, sustainable cooking,” she focuses on the difference small changes can make.

“The one thing that motivated me to write this is the baby steps. One of the things that I’ve known to be true throughout my life is that when we take steps in our personal lives, not only do we impact our experience in who we are — we also impact those around us and, at a larger level, the planet, which is incredible when you think of it. Because that means that when you change your small personal steps, you can actually cause a ripple and make a difference in other people’s lives.”

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Chhitwal-Varma based Good Food, Healthy Planet on five guiding principles, her tongue-in-cheek “Eating with Benefits” framework: Diversify Your Diet; Move Away from Meat; Pulses are Perfect; Reduce What You Throw Away; and Shop Local, Think Global. The book’s 80-plus recipes are climate-conscious, low-waste and mainly meat-free (and mostly gluten- and dairy-free by nature).

She highlights that you don’t necessarily need to apply all five guiding principles to every meal. Much like a masala dabba (spice box), which is how the framework illustration in the book came to be, you might choose one or two or a mix of all five. For example, her pantry-forward Good Mood Bolognese Sauce halves the meat with equal parts ground turkey and lentils, and her Calcutta-Style Kathi Rolls are vegetarian and low-waste.

“This was supposed to help people use the principles in their real life. All of this advice — good for you, good for your gut — works if we can actually implement it in our regular, everyday lives. Otherwise, it’s not sustainable.”

With an educational background in economics and marketing, Chhitwal-Varma started the blog Maple and Marigold (a nod to Canada and her Indian roots) in 2016. After reading the IPCC’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5C in 2018, she was inspired to dedicate her career to food advocacy and sustainability. When her dad, Inder Kumar, passed away, she set aside “that someday mindset.”

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“If there are things we need to do to make a change, we need to do them today. And it’s fine if it’s today, not five years ago or 18 years ago. We can start wherever we are because everybody’s in a different place. It just matters that we make a difference wherever we are.”

Good Food, Healthy Planet book cover
Good Food, Healthy Planet is Toronto-based writer and food advocate Puneeta Chhitwal-Varma’s first book. Photo by Touchwood Editions

During the early days of the pandemic, Chhitwal-Varma took an online course at Deakin University’s Food and Mood Centre in Geelong, Australia, about the connection between diet, gut health and mental health. The link between eating to feed your body and mind and eating to save the planet immediately became apparent.

Inspired by the IPCC report’s roadmap of actions people could take in their everyday lives to make a difference and science “finally catching up with what traditional wisdom has always known,” the book started to take shape.

“The evidence was so clear that if we ate a diet rich in whole grains, fermented foods, fruits and veg, some fish and a tiny amount of meat, that’s what’s important here. That all of this, in moderation, was actually the best diet for our personal health, for our mental well-being, and also for the health and well-being of the planet. It’s incredible how it’s all connected.”

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Chhitwal-Varma wrote the book for people who are ready for change and understand the long-term cost of continuing the status quo. While she was growing up, her family lived a “nomadic lifestyle,” relocating every 18 months for her father’s job with the Indian military. Before moving to Toronto, she lived in many different regions in India, Dubai and Calgary. Her familiarity with change has positioned her well to explore ways of encouraging it in others.

Diversifying your diet is a critical piece of the puzzle. If you eat spinach one day, switch to arugula the next, Chhitwal-Varma suggests. Eat more whole grains such as barley, millet and spelt, and include fermented foods such as yogurt, pickled vegetables and kanji in your daily diet. Instead of lettuce (a thirsty crop), try other green leaves such as bok choy, kale, spinach, Swiss chard or watercress. Wrap them in a damp tea towel before you put them in the fridge so they last longer. “There’s so much ease in so many ways.”

Eating more sustainably means that we’ll have enough food for generations, explains Chhitwal-Varma. Including more plant-based foods and fewer animal sources will help revive, regenerate and replenish our food systems.

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“With climate and sustainability, there’s a lot of change coming. It feels right to write this guide that will, hopefully, help people navigate this time, because affordability is not coming down. We shouldn’t be able to eat strawberries all year long. It’s just a fact of life because they’re getting imported, and then strawberries from Spain will become more expensive as the cost of fuel and transportation keeps going up. And so, we need to get accustomed to this new palate.”

Corporations and political leaders need to help build systems, underscores Chhitwal-Varma, but what we do at home and in the kitchen matters. According to the UN Food Waste Index Report 2024, most of the world’s food waste comes from households, where people throw away at least one billion meals per day.

The flexible cooking style she features in Good Food, Healthy Planet addresses converging crises, including food insecurity, climate change and cost of living. These crises are connected, which can be frightening, but so are the solutions, says Chhitwal-Varma.

Take a head of broccoli, for instance. If you use the stems as well as the crown, you have two meals instead of one, which curbs waste, reduces greenhouse gas emissions and saves money. “It’s all connected. And it can feel like, ‘Oh, this is just one more thing I have to do.’ But if we think about it in terms of impact, that gives us this surge of motivation and encouragement. That is what I want to share with the book. There’s so much that we can do. And we can all do it in different places, different ways. We just need to do it.”

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CALCUTTA-STYLE KATHI ROLLS

Calcutta-style kathi rolls
Calcutta-style kathi rolls with quick-pickled onions are “a sparkle of flavours.” Photo by Diana Muresan

Vegetarian | Low-waste
40 minutes
Makes: 4 rolls

For the paneer filling:
2 tbsp olive oil
2 tsp finely chopped garlic
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
1 cup drained and dried homemade paneer curds or 9 oz (250 g) store-bought paneer, cut into 1- × 2-inch rectangles
1 tsp cumin powder
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp red chili powder

For the chapatti rolls:
4 eggs
1 tbsp water
Salt to taste
1 tbsp olive oil (approx.)
4 Whole-Grain Chapattis (recipe follows) or store-bought whole-grain tortillas

For assembly:
Sliced fresh greens like arugula or watercress
Fresh Cilantro and Mint Chutney (recipe follows)
Quick-Pickled Onions (recipe follows)

Step 1: For the paneer filling

Heat the olive oil in a skillet on medium-high heat. Add the garlic and cook for 45 seconds. Add the turmeric powder and stir. Add the homemade paneer curds, cumin, salt and chili powder. Toss to coat. Turn the heat to medium-low, cover the skillet, and let the paneer cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Uncover the skillet and continue to cook to allow any liquid to evaporate. (If you’re using store-bought paneer, the method remains the same, but you may need to add 2-3 tbsp water to allow the mixture to come together and coat the paneer.)

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Step 2: For the chapatti rolls

Crack the eggs into a mixing bowl, add the water and salt to taste, whisk, and set aside.

Place a skillet on the stove on medium heat. Drizzle oil in the pan and lightly fry each chapatti (alternatively, use store-bought whole-grain tortillas) for 15 seconds on one side only, then set it aside. In total, you will use approximately 1 tbsp oil for 4 chapattis.

Next, pour one-quarter of the whisked eggs into the pan and swirl it around. Place 1 chapatti on top of the egg mixture, browned side down. Swirl around and let the egg continue to cook.

Use a flat spatula to flip the chapatti and egg combination so that the egg side is up. Cook the chapatti for 15 seconds and then set it aside on a plate. Cover with another plate so that it stays warm. Repeat with the remaining whisked eggs and chapattis.

Step 3: For assembly

Time to assemble the kathi rolls. Lay everything out, including the cooked paneer, sliced greens, chutney and pickled onions.

On each of the eggy chapattis, start by laying sliced greens, then top with a few pieces of paneer, a drizzle of chutney, and lots of pickled onions. Roll and tuck one end under the other.

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Repeat with the rest of the chapattis and enjoy!

How to eat: Enjoy as is! These rolls make a great portable snack or meal for tiny hands or midday lunches or festive potlucks! All the condiments and flavours you need are already tucked inside.

2-INGREDIENT WHOLE-GRAIN FLATBREAD

Chapatti, two-ingredient whole-grain flatbread
Chapatti, two-ingredient whole-grain flatbread, is “simple food for the soul,” writes Puneeta Chhitwal-Varma. Photo by Diana Muresan

Chapatti

Vegetarian | Pantry-forward | Freezer-friendly
30 minutes + resting time
Makes: 8 chapattis

1 cup atta flour
1 cup water (approx.)
Ghee, carom seeds, salt (optional)

Equipment:
Paraat or high-sided plate; large bowl; rolling pin; large tawa or stainless steel frying pan; flat-edged tongs; a light-weight cotton tea towel

Step 1

Add the flour to the paraat and start adding the water, a splash at a time. Knead. Add more water a little at a time and allow it to absorb into the flour. Kneading and folding will help the dough come together. This process takes about 8-9 minutes. As you knead, you’ll notice the dough becoming more flexible and the bits and sprinkles from the corners of the paraat will come together. If cracks appear in the dough, it’s too dry. Add a splash of water and then knead for another minute.

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Step 2

Shape the dough into a large ball, sprinkle with a few drops of water, and cover it with a large bowl placed upside down over the dough. Let it rest for 45 minutes.

Step 3

Uncover the dough and gently knead and fold it again. You should now be able to feel the elasticity and flexibility in the dough. This texture makes the chapattis soft and fluffy.

Step 4

Divide the dough into 2 1/2- to 3-inch peda, or balls. Loosely shape the balls of dough between the palms of your hands into rustic discs. Place each disc on a flat surface, such as a clean kitchen counter, and sprinkle a generous pinch of flour on it. Roll it out with the rolling pin. Add another sprinkle of flour, flip it, and roll it again. At this time you can smear a drop of ghee with the back of a spoon and sprinkle a pinch of carom seeds and salt on the dough. Roll it again. The dough will start to flatten out and move around, and you should end up with a thin, circular chapatti about 6-7 inches in diameter.

Step 5

Place the tawa on the stove on high heat. Once the tawa is hot, lower the heat to medium and wipe the surface with a clean cloth. Place the chapatti on the tawa and allow it to cook until you see bubbles form in the dough, about 1 minute. Flip the chapatti, using tongs if needed. You should start to see parts of the chapatti puff up now! Gentle patting with a folded tea towel will help the chapatti puff some more. Cook on this side for 30 seconds and then remove from the pan. Serve hot with a smear of ghee or butter.

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Step 6

To store, cool chapattis completely and refrigerate for 3 days. You can also freeze chapattis in an airtight container. To reheat, thaw, add a sprinkle of water, cover and microwave on high in stacks of 2-3 for 30 seconds.

FRESH CILANTRO AND MINT CHUTNEY

Dips, dressings, chutneys and condiments
Make fresh cilantro and mint chutney, upper left, with the herbs you have to avoid waste, suggests Puneeta Chhitwal-Varma. “Parsley and dill add their own unique flavours to this chutney.” Photo by Diana Muresan

Vegan | Low-waste
15 minutes
Makes: 1 cup

2 cups loosely packed cilantro leaves and top stems
1/2 cup loosely packed mint leaves (no stems)
3 green chilies, stems off
1 medium shallot, peeled and cut into chunks
3 tbsp lime juice (approx. 1 1/2 limes)
1 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
1-2 tbsp cold water for blending

Equipment:
High-speed blender

Step 1

Combine all the ingredients in the blender, except the water. Blend until the mixture has the consistency of a thick smoothie, 3-4 minutes. Push down the contents of the blender, scrape down the edges, and add cold water a tablespoon at a time. Blend again. Avoid overblending, as the herbs may turn bitter.

Step 2

Store in the fridge for up to 5 days. The mint and lime juice combination will darken the chutney as it oxidizes.

Variations: Looking for a creamier texture? Add 2 tbsp roasted peanuts, cashews or fresh coconut.

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#GoGreen Tip: Switch the herbs up with what you have to avoid waste. Parsley and dill add their own unique flavours to this chutney.

HOW TO QUICK-PICKLE HARD VEGGIES

Vegan | Low-waste
20 minutes
Makes: 2 cups

1 cup rice wine (or distilled white) vinegar
1 cup water
2 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
2 cups crunchy vegetables, cut into 1-inch batons or sliced, for example:

  • Beets
  • Cabbage
  • Carrots
  • Cucumbers
  • Hot peppers
  • Radishes
  • Red onions
  • Turnips

Equipment:
Glass jar, with lid, large enough to fit the veggies and liquid mixture, or several smaller jars

Step 1

In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, bring the vinegar and water to a boil. Turn the heat off. Add the sugar and salt and stir to dissolve. Pack the vegetables into the glass jar, pour the hot liquid on top, and let it stand to cool.

Step 2

Once it’s cool, put the lid on the jar and store it in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks. The crunchiness will start to mellow out by day 3.

How to eat: Enjoy immediately once cooled, but the flavours really pop after a day in the fridge. The pickles can be added to lentils and bean dishes, with chapatti on the side. One of my favourite ways to eat them is tucked into the Calcutta-Style Kathi Rolls (see recipe).

Recipes and images excerpted from from Good Food, Healthy Planet by Puneeta Chhitwal-Varma. Copyright ©2024 by Puneeta Chhitwal-Varma. Reprinted with permission of TouchWood Editions. touchwoodeditions.com

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